India boasts one of the world’s most robust postal services, historically rivaling the Royal Mail, that is apparently under threat now. Even the smallest village here has a post office. In Srinagar, as you walk alongside Dal Lake, you’ll come across a post office that floats on its waters.
On the first day of the first lockdown in late March of 2020, I published, in an American literary journal, a short story, “My Father, the watchmaker”. The story, aside from being a public confession that my father, though living, is missing from my life, explores the twin cities of Lahore and Delhi, divided by nations. It was the first story in this collection that I wrote within a week of the world completely falling silent, perhaps the first week in a very long time when even delivery boys working for the Indian postal services were confined to their homes.
The only reason I was prompted to add nine stories to make a collection of ten was because I happened to publish this story in an online literary magazine. It caught the attention of a young man living in Lahore, who was into making films, drinking chai (he had recently, he told me, gone off booze, which allowed him to think more clearly), playing the harmonium, writing Ghazals in English, and occasionally translating English letters into Urdu. During our conversation, I discovered that my family’s watch shop, which traced its origins to Anarkali Bazar in Lahore, was located near the site — sometimes we replace time with space — of a watch shop owned by an uncle of my newfound friend.
Had it not been for our conversations, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive this collection of short stories or vividly recollect the long evenings I spent with my grandmother, discussing our family who lived on Nisbat Road. Most of the ‘things’ that happen in this slim volume of a book comprising a mere 67 pages — incidentally the address of the home my family moved to on Rohtak Road in New Delhi — are true, although I must admit I took the liberty of inordinately swelling time by fusing the characters of my grandfather and father into a single solitary figure, coupled with other such tinkering of truth.
When the book appeared in print that very same year, I was confronted with the unexpected challenge of sending a copy to my friend, who by now had already translated the title story into Urdu, working parallel across borders like train tracks that chart known territories that for some reason feel unfamiliar. I did not know that this robust postal system comprising intricate nodes in every village capable of sending mail to far-flung regions does not deliver post to the other side of Punjab. This was unfortunate, for alongside another name of a very special person, I had acknowledged my friend in the first pages of the book.
Cultures that were once united often split and then reunite in exile. What else is the use of nations like America, a veritable melting pot of migrants who deleted indigenous folk and much later published my short story, acknowledging all the while that they are sitting on native American soil? It is perhaps in places like these, where people who belonged to perhaps the same street perchance meet, as if in a dream.
Some months later, on a work assignment in Dubai, I felt that I had traversed into the past, that I had walked into — much akin to my uncle accidentally stumbling upon his ancestral home in Rawalpindi many decades after Partition — a pre-partition city located, as is natural now to expect, somewhere else, in exile. Most of my newfound friends were from Lahore or places close to Lahore, such as Sialkot, the locus of my maternal grandfather’s birth. I had finally found a more reliable postal service and ever since have even toyed with the idea of starting an enterprise, delivering mail from India to Pakistan via Dubai. Instead, however, I wrote a book, a veritable epistolary exchange to a friend hailing from a twin city divided by nations where not even a single letter can pass through.
Gaurav, a writer and teacher originally from New Delhi, has authored several books, including “Tears for Rahul Dutta,” “Family Matters,” “Ruins,” “Costumes of the Living,” “My Father, The Watchmaker,” “The English Teacher,” and “Raju and Kishore.” His work has been featured in numerous literary magazines, such as B O D Y, Fanzine, Juked, Tammy Journal, Spurl Editions, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and Birkensnake, among others. He is also a regular contributor to Outlook India and a member of the international art and lifestyle movement, Neo-Decadence. His current literary project explores the relationship between fashion and literature, titled “A Fashion Dictionary,” with excerpts published in Vestoj, Dismantle, and B O D Y.